What do burned toast, tea, raw egg and vegetable oil all have in common? All were once considered helpful treatments for poisoning. Now we know that DIY cures can delay effective care, and may even make the situation worse.
A frantic internet search after a poisoning can also lead to outdated or inaccurate recommendations. Another surprisingly dangerous practice is making a poisoned person vomit. It seems logical — if someone ate something bad, bring it back up, right? Wrong! Many poisons can cause severe burns to the delicate tissues in the throat and esophagus, especially the second time. Sticking a finger (with a sharp nail) down a child’s throat can also lead to injury.
If your child has been poisoned, evaluate the situation. Call 911 if they are unconscious or struggling to breathe. If your child is stable, call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 for guidance. Poison control specialists are doctors, nurses or pharmacists who are experts at handling poisonings in children and adults. Calls made to the poison control center are free and confidential.
Because every poisoning is unique, treatment will depend on the poison, the person and the timing of when the poisoning happened. Depending on what happened, you may be able to safely manage a poisoning yourself at home.
For poisonings from medications
Before you have your child drink milk to counteract a medication overdose, make the call to the poison control center, as milk is not a cure-all solution. If they took too much medicine, you will need to know what medicines were involved and roughly how much. You also need to know their weight and if they take the medicine routinely.
While some medicine mistakes result in mild symptoms like stomach upset, dizziness or diarrhea, mistakes involving pain medication, such as morphine, fentanyl or hydrocodone, are more likely to be serious or even life threatening. A pain medication overdose can be quickly reversed if caught in time.
Chemicals or cleaners
If your child has ingested a chemical, do not give them anything to drink or force them to vomit. Instead, call the poison control center immediately. Have the chemical’s container handy so you can share the list of ingredients with poison control specialists. Poison centers do not recommend the use of Ipecac syrup or activated charcoal at home. The good news is that most household cleaners are not very toxic unless combined to form dangerous gases.
Bitten or stung
If a snakebite is from a venomous species, call 911. Emergency responders will work with the poison control center to begin treatment on site.
If the bite is from an insect or non-venomous snake, gently clean the wound with soap and water and call the poison control center. You can even send the poison specialists photos of the offending bug, spider or snake. Minor bites can often be treated at home with over-the-counter products and careful monitoring.
If nausea and vomiting quickly follow a meal, your child likely has food poisoning. The poison center can give advice about managing nausea, vomiting or dehydration. Save some of the food from their last meal for testing. And be prepared for the poison center to refer your case of food poisoning to the health department if the illness is a result of eating at a restaurant. If your child has a fever, blood in the stool or chills, they may need medical care.
Poisons on the skin
If you get chemicals or toxic substances on your skin, carefully remove affected clothing with gloves. Rinse skin with water and use a mild soap and call the poison center. Do not attempt to neutralize an acid with an alkali! The poison specialist will be able to determine if you need medical care.
Poisons in the eye
Household cleaners and chemicals can splash into the eyes, causing burning or irritation. Do not use eye drops or ointments. Call the poison center and follow instructions carefully. Many eye exposures can be treated by gently rinsing the eye with lukewarm water for 15 minutes, but some may require further care.
Related to drug or alcohol abuse
If your child is suffering a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning, you can call the poison center for help without fear. Phone calls are kept private and not reported to law enforcement.
Most people who have a drug overdose can be saved if help is received in time, so place a call for help as quickly as possible. Black coffee, stimulant drugs, ice water or other attempts to wake someone up from an overdose will not reverse the poisoning.
As we go through life, accidents will happen. Luckily, no one in South Florida has to rely on the internet, folk wisdom or good luck when faced with a poisoning because the poison control center is available 24/7, seven days a week.
Wendy Stephan is the health education coordinator and Richard Weisman, Pharm.D., is the director of the Florida Poison Control Center – Miami, located at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.